Sunday 29 September 2013

An unsatisfactory blog

As regular followers will know, I always publish a blog on Sunday night. What they might not know is that it is usually written over the weekend before and only polished off and then published on the Sunday.

And this Sunday my blog was meant to be about the pros and cons of abolishing corroboration in Scottish Criminal law. On which matter I would have ended up, conditionally but emphatically, in the "con" camp.

But Lallands Peat Worrier got there before me, I swithered about resorting to outright plagiarism but have, in the end, resigned myself to rather pathetically commending to you my comment on his site.

So, instead, I offer you some music. Enjoy.

Sunday 22 September 2013


Yesterday we had a bit of fun on twitter over the number who had attended the Independence March and Rally in Edinburgh.

I have no idea why this has become such a shibboleth for some Nationalists. It was the same last year when the limitations of those in attendance were easily demonstrated by the published capacity of the Ross Bandstand, where last year's rally was held, and it was yesterday when despite a police estimate of 8300 marchers, Nicola Sturgeon insisted there were 30,000 there.

What did it matter? Even I accept that more than 30,000 people support Scottish Independence and that even the most diehard of bravehearts might have something better to do on a Saturday afternoon. I myself was at the Saint Mirren end at Easter Road where Irvine Welsh did the half time draw (and was subject to some literary criticism from our fans in the process). I didn’t think however that this meant he had abandoned his support for Scottish Independence or “snubbed” the March and Rally. He would just rather have been at the football.

Indeed, you could take the hypothetical 30,000, add a zero and double it and find even the most optimistic Better Togetherer prepared to accept that this still underestimates the number who will likely vote Yes next year.

So why did it become so important for various cybernats, and a few others who should have known better, to insist the 30,000 figure was accurate even when an aerial photograph taken at the height of the rally (2.20 pm to be precise) showed this to be patently absurd.Embedded image permalink

Because Nicola had said it. And,  for some, whatever Nicola, or Eck, say must be true, even in the face of objective, indeed in this case photographic, evidence to the contrary.

Cybernat opinion was split on how to explain the photograph. Some insisted in defiance of their own eyes, that there were indeed 30,000 people in it. Others, that it must have been taken at a different time of day. The maddest suggested it had been taken by a MI5 Drone and then doctored by the British Security Services before being passed to their trusty contacts at Scotland on Sunday!

Now none of this would be of anything other than amusement if it were not for this cavalier attitude to much more important figures being an increasing feature of the Nationalist movement.

Last week on the television on Wednesday evening, John Swinney, understandably evaded when asked if an Independent Scottish Government would renationalise the Royal Mail as he clearly had no idea what this would cost or indeed whether it could be afforded. The next day, in the Parliament, so did Eck. Until at the third time of asking he obviously thought and essentially said “To Hell with it! Never mind the cost! (of which I have no idea) Yes we will!”

And then in this morning’s papers we learn that, in an independent Scotland, we will all apparently be able to retire earlier! Again, never mind what that might cost or that we know from an earlier leaked paper that in private Swinney has doubts about the affordability of even the existing pension provision after independence.

Well, just like the 30.000 on Calton Hill yesterday, these things don’t become true just because the SNP leadership say them. And I suspect that increasingly these outlandish claims are only persuading the remaining undecided that the Nationalists have no idea what they are talking about. Indeed, yesterday morning’s Good Morning Scotland revealed that, Ken Cairnduff, formerly a leading figure  in the pro-independence Business for Scotland group was now undecided as to how he would vote. I suspect he’s far from alone. 

The Pension “pledge” did not lead Scotland on Sunday today because that newspaper saw it as a positive for Yes Scotland, of which that newspaper is hardly an enthusiastic supporter, but rather because it gave an opportunity to hold the Nationalists up to ridicule, which has proved to be the overwhelming reaction.

Eck suddenly announced mid week that “Even opponents of independence accept Scotland would be a prosperous independent country.” No we don’t. We accept Scotland would, at a significant cost in terms of living standards, be a viable independent country. That is far from being the same thing. And that is the conclusion of all independent economic analysts, most recently this week past, the independent Institute of Fiscal Studies  but most importantly of all the Scottish Government’s own hand picked Council of Economic Advisers, who concluded in their last report that an independent Scotland, albeit not as immediately suggested by the IfS, would face either significant tax rises or cuts in public expenditure. And certainly not the opportunity for uncosted capital acquisitions or revenue giveaways.

Now the conventional conclusion of others who have pointed out this inconsistency has been to suggest that the Nationalists will promise anything to secure a Yes vote. But there is of course another conclusion. That if the Nationalists have concluded that they are not going to win, it doesn’t really matter what they promise.

Saturday 14 September 2013

A Scandal of a different sort. Conspiracy, Cock up and Crichel Down

I want to start by saying that I do not agree with the approach taken by the Labour Front Bench to the scandal whereby land acquired for the Glasgow Airport Rail Link (GARL) in 2008 for £840,000 was sold back to the original seller for £50,000 after the Rail Link was cancelled.

Santiago Carillo, the first post Falangist leader of the Spanish Communist Party, famously wrote, in Euro-communism and the State, that while with the benefit of hindsight it is clear that the Anarchists were not secretly allied with Franco during the Spanish Civil War, it was understandable at the time that many people concluded that this was the only logical explanation for their behaviour.

I fear this is the trap that Johann has fallen into over the GARL scandal. Such is the degree of ineptitude and gross incompetence involved, it was difficult to imagine this was done innocently, but in the end that has to be the conclusion. The alternative would involve a conspiracy so vast, not only within the Governing Party but within the permanent institutions of Government that it would surely be beyond the talents of Even Alex Salmond to organise.

And, in any event, even I, as one of the First Minister's fiercest critics, do not believe him to be financially corrupt. There's far too much of this nonsense on all sides in the Parliament. I've written before about back-benchers having to be found something to do and one of these somethings seems to  investigating each others expenses in forensic detail. It was ludicrous that the late David McLetchie lost the leadership of the Tories over allegations, at their highest, that he had charged taxis to the wrong account. And it was equally ludicrous that Wendy was brought down over a matter as trivial as failing to check that a named donor to an unnecessary leadership campaign was actually on the UK Election Register.

"Every error has to be corruption!" Well, no it doesn't. Sometimes it can just be incompetence. Or in the case of the GARL deal gross incompetence.

The responsible Minister made an incredibly stupid decision and Mr McGlynn, successful businessman that he is, saw the chance to make a killing. On one view hats off to the latter. Shows a spirit of enterprise all to often lacking in Scotland.

But in the aftermath of the scandal being exposed something very interesting happened. Despite their assertions to this effect being completely untrue, the Nationalists tried to suggest that this was all the fault of the Westminster Government. They claimed that they were bound to act in accordance with "Treasury Rules". No they weren't. There were indeed rules and they acted within them, although not as required by them, but these were ENTIRELY DEVOLVED SCOTTISH GOVERNMENT RULES. That had nothing at all to do with Westminster except that we had, ENTIRELY VOLUNTARILY adopted them. I'll come on to their detail.

Now here it is time for a wee history lesson. For whatever reason the compulsory acquisition of land by the state, although it goes back several centuries, has always been a controversial matter, even although, since time immemorial, it has involved compensation being paid based on an independent valuation of the value of the land. There is a certain mindset, at least among those who have ever owned land, that no matter in what dodgy way it might have originally been acquired, that "your" land shouldn't be taken off you against your wishes. And that, although you've been paid for the land by the State, once the State no longer requires it "you" should be entitled to get it back, albeit at a price. For the avoidance of doubt this is a mindset that applies to land only. No matter what one thinks of the privatisation of coal, steel and the railways, nobody suggested that the original owners should be given first refusal when they were sold back into the private sector.

But land is different, for whatever irrational reason, perhaps because it is the last redoubt of the........landed.....classes.

In the run up to the Second World War, the State, for understandable military reasons, acquired a great quantity of land. And one of the pieces of land involved 75 Acres attached to country estate, Crichel Down, in Dorset. The land was to be used for bombing practice. The owners were given good money for it but they were also promised they'd be given the chance to buy it back once it was no longer required.

After the war, that didn't happen. Instead, the land was developed for agriculture and leased out. And the owners threw a wobbly. By the time they were eventually offered "their" land back it had been improved to an extent that it was valued beyond their pocket. So they threw an even bigger wobbly.

But the owners were "well connected" so, eventually, there was a public inquiry and the Civil Servants involved were much criticised.

Now this matter had a long tail and left two very major scars on the Civil Service. Firstly, it established that civil servants acting in good faith could nonetheless be open to criticism. Some credit it with the ultimate creation of the Parliamentary Ombudsman. Secondly, the Minister responsible resigned, on the basis that although he had no personal involvement (indeed much of what had happened had happened under a previous, Labour, administration) he felt he had to take the fall for his Department. The senior ranks of the Service decided that this left a stain on their own character for having let an innocent man down.

So rules were introduced to ensure such a thing could never happen again. Not rules, one might have thought, setting out when it was legitimate for the State to retain land compulsorily acquired but rather rules requiring that land so acquired and then no longer needed for its original purpose should be offered back to its original owner or sold on the open market as soon as possible. Perhaps not a surprising way forward for a 1950s Tory Government but......

Now just in case you are wondering what any of this Wessexian rural whimsy from the Nineteen Forties and Fifties has got to do with 21st Century Scotland I will eventually give you the link to the Scottish Government Finance Manual. and in particular the section entitled "Disposal of Property, Plant and Equipment". Click on the link within that document to the Annex and then look at point 3 of paragraph 2. For, in disposing of Land acquired compulsorily or under threat of compulsion, it remains the rule, but crucially not the law, that one of the first steps to be taken is "To check the application of the Crichel Down Rules"!

Now, reader, you and I might think that in this day and age the owners of property who have already been compensated for its loss, particularly property of no conceivable sentimental value, should have no particular preference if our Government decides to sell that land on. But it is worse than that. When the land is originally acquired, the valuation includes an element to reflect the benefit it will gain from the development to be built upon it. When however the land is offered back, it is offered at a value reflecting the fact that this development will not now take place. Thus, inevitably, almost certainly at a significantly lower value.

Now, you and I might again be wondering why such a situation favouring land owners at the expense of taxpayers is in place. The only answer is that these are "The Rules". And, I repeat, they are not Westminster's Rules, they are entirely Scottish Rules, adopted voluntarily by the Scottish Government.

Beyond even that however, why, if the former owner doesn't want the land back at an independently fixed price,  do the rules suggest the land be sold as quickly as possible, irrespective of market conditions? For that was what happened with the GARL land? Answers on a postcard to St Andrew's House.

Anyway, did these Rules even require (rather than suggest) that the GARL land had to be offered back to anybody? No they didn't. Look at Rule 3.

3. Holdings of property, plant and equipment should be kept under constant review with a view to disposing of surplus assets as quickly as possible. Surplus land and buildings should usually be disposed of within 3 years of being identified as surplus, and surplus residential properties should usually be sold within 6 months of becoming vacant. (my emphasis)

Point one, was this land surplus? GARL was cancelled by the SNP Government for financial reasons. They were never opposed for reason of principle. It remained and remains a favoured policy of the principal opposition Party who, resources allowing would go ahead if returned to power. Indeed, if we take the SNP at their word and that "after Independence" we'll have so much money we won't now how to spend it, who is to say the SNP themselves won't revisit the idea in the future? Surely it would make sense to retain this land against either eventually, rather than have buy it back again?

Point two, "usually". For, it is important to emphasise, yet again, that these are self imposed rules made by Ministers, not required by law.  It is thus open to the Minister, at any time, to decide to disregard or change the rules. We know that Sarah Boyack, as Minister for Transport, did just that when it was suggested to her that land acquired for the second Forth crossing should be disposed of when that project was abandoned by the 1999-2003 Lab/Lib administration.

And that leads me to my most important point? Why anyway are these the rules? Why is the Scottish Government subject to "rules" that inevitably favour, at best, the former owners of land, and, at worst, at the bottom of the market, property speculators who can acquire property in a market where no private seller would ever sell? This is entirely devolved, so why are the rules exactly the same as those applying to England? Is there a political consensus across the UK that the Government should be expected to sell land at a significant loss to the taxpayer?  I very much doubt it.

I acknowledge, in concluding, that this as much a criticism of our eight years as the six that have followed but why have all of our politicians been so unaware or unwilling to use the existing powers of the Parliament and the devolved administration?

That's the real scandal about GARL. A scandal of gross ministerial incompetence and more general political cowardice. That should have been more than enough for Johann to get her teeth into last Thursday.

Sunday 8 September 2013

Not going away

Graeme Pearson and I come from different ends of the criminal justice system. Before becoming an MSP he had spent all of his life as a policeman, latterly a very senior policeman, catching the bad guys and seeing them prosecuted. I, on the other hand, have never prosecuted anyone in my life, my own career being devoted to defending the innocent and sometimes the not so innocent.

But Graeme and I have one skill in common, spotting when somebody's story doesn't ring true. And when Graeme says in a press release today that Nicola Sturgeon's "alibi" over Bill Walker simply does not add up, he has my unconditional endorsement.

I blogged about this on the day Walker was convicted since when various other pieces of the jigsaw have come to light.

Firstly, it appears I was too readily prepared to accept the version of the SNP about the meeting Rob Armstrong, Walker's former brother in law had with Nicola Sturgeon's office in 2008. The SNP claimed that it was primarily about a child access dispute and indeed in my previous blog I was crtical about their breach of confidentiality in that regard but here we have Mr Armstrong's version of events.

 "[that] is a totally inaccurate assessment of that meeting. The purpose of the meeting was purely about Bill Walker."

Now, Mr Armstrong subsequently gave an interview to Raymond Buchanan on Newsnight Scotland, unfortunately no longer available online, but anyone who saw that will have formed the impression of a man measured in his remarks who was at pains to say that he had no wider animus against the SNP and indeed was positively complimentary about the First Minister who he clearly did not think had any personal knowledge of these matters. Yet, it would appear that, this notwithstanding, the SNP are accusing Mr Armstrong of lying.

Then we have this this carefully worded statement from the SNP after Walker's conviction.

"The matter was considered by a member of staff at SNP headquarters and reasonable enquiries made, but there was no evidence of any complaint in law or legal proceedings into Mr Walker's conduct, and the inquiry was closed."

Now that is true but exceptionally economical with that truth.

For we now have much more detail about what the SNP did know about Walker in 2008.It is here.

I draw your attention particularly to this section

[Mr Armstrong] said he recalled showing Sturgeon's aide at least three documents: a ­hand-written affidavit by Walker about a child access case; an old newspaper cutting about his past; and a damning court judgment.
In the 1987 affidavit, Walker wrote about an incident in which he hit his former step-daughter Louise with a saucepan.
Walker also responded to Louise's claim that he smacked her on the bare bottom until the age of 15.
He wrote: "After no more than [waiting] 15 minutes she did receive her 'punishment', one smack on each buttock with a slipper, with her navy blue knickers on."

Now, that may not be "any complaint in law or legal proceedings into (The SNP's word) Mr Walker's conduct but it is certainly evidence of legal proceedings about his conduct. And the affidavit, for the avoidance of doubt was not from a third party who might  have had an axe to grind. It was from Walker himself.

How, faced with that evidence, the admission by a middle aged man that he regarded it as appropriate behaviour to strike his teenage stepdaughter on the buttocks, was it decided that it was appropriate to "close the (sic) inquiry"? That is surely something that can't be shrugged off as a regrettable oversight? While readers can form their own view, it certainly looks to me like a wilful decision to overlook child abuse to prevent political embarrassment.

And then we have Nicola's own (very) carefully worded statement.

"It is, of course, the case that knowing what is now known about Bill Walker, we all wish that he had been prevented from becoming an SNP candidate."

I don't doubt that for a moment! That however is some considerable way from the much simpler statement that it is regrettable that the SNP did not act on the information they possessed in 2008.

And it remains unclear why that is not the clear and public position of the Deputy First Minister. In light of the information about the affidavit signed by Walker himself it is clear that the earlier suggestion by the SNP that they had no way of verifying the "allegations" is simply unsustainable. They may not have had the means to get to all the detail ultimately exposed by the prosecuting authorities but they had the man's own admission of the smacking incident and the assault with the saucepan, albeit in respect of the latter presumably subject to the same plea of "self defence" that Walker unsuccessfully advanced at his trial. They also had the newspaper reports which, if untrue, would surely have been defamatory to a degree that Walker might at least have been asked why he had not sued.

But, then again, it appears Walker was never asked anything about the information provided by Mr Armstrong, either at the time or when he was later adopted as a Parliamentary candidate.

I do not know the identity of the SNP official who decided to "close the inquiry" but I agree with Mr Armstrong in the opening paragraph the last article quoted that whoever it was ought to be considering their position. As should anybody else who knew of that decision and approved it.

And I also know this. If the SNP decide to continue to bury their heads in the sand over this matter it will most certainly not go away. And people more widely will start to ask if this is an attractive advertisement for the would be government of an independent country.

They need, As Kate Higgins suggests todayto set up an independent inquiry into what happened. Might I suggest Mungo Bovey, the leading Nationalist QC and a person of unimpeachable integrity, as a suitable candidate for its chair. And they then need to act on the result of that inquiry. No matter who it implicates.

And, before I'm asked, that would certainly be my position had Walker been elected as a Labour MSP. I'm not suggesting wrong calls on such matters are the exclusive preserve of the SNP. But I am suggesting that all the evidence points to a wrong call having been made. Zero tolerance has to mean just that. 

Sunday 1 September 2013

More Power to our Enemies

It is easy to forget that in the History of the SNP they have not always been in favour of a devolved Scottish Parliament.

Going back as far as the period immediately after the Second World War it saw "King" John McCormick depart the organised Nationalist movement over the unacceptability of his view that half a loaf was better than no bread.

The decision by the Nationalists to support the 1979 Devolution scheme was not without internal controversy and in the aftermath of that process they reverted to an absolutist position of Independence or bust which led to them refusing to participate in the Constitutional Convention and even caused momentary doubt about whether they would campaign for a Yes vote in the 1997 Referendum.

Insofar as there was an SNP strategy to achieve independence during these periods of disengagement from the wider home rule movement it anticipated a sort of democratic insurrection.

A majority of Westminster seats would be secured and then that majority would withdraw from Westminster and declare the formation of a sovereign Scottish ParliamentGovernment. Essentially this was modelled on the formation of the Dail Eireann by Irish Nationalist MPs after they won a majority of Irish seats at the 1918 UK General Election.

Issues such as whether a majority of seats might have been achieved based on something well short of a majority of votes (something Labour has done in Scotland for the best part of fifty years) were kind of glossed over in this scenario, in keeping with much of the woolly thinking of the Nationalists at the time. But so was how  this "sovereign" Parliament might proceed once set up, for there was no "Scottish" Government for them to take control of, only the British Government in Scotland. Indeed that was the Nationalists principal complaint!

So what would they do if their Parliament was ignored by Westminster? And more importantly, if at the direction of Westminster, or more precisely, "The Queen in Parliament", it was ignored by the Police, by local government and by the myriad agencies, from Tax Offices to Post Offices, essential to the operation of a modern state?  Ultimately, what would it do if it was ignored by the "British" Army?

The only official answer to this was similar to the Nationalist answer to many post referendum questions today. That counter-intuitively, the English Government which had treated us appallingly while we were in the same Nation State would suddenly become the soul of reason once we'd decided to set up a nation state of our own.

But of course there was always a less official answer lurking in the background. That in that scenario more direct action might be required.

And for that reason, the SNP were not, historically, as willing to completely distance themselves from those who showed a willingness to participate in that direct action as their impeccably democratic rhetoric might have suggested should be the case.

And I actually have some sympathy for that position. It was an entirely natural, indeed almost reasonable, feature of the commitment to a democratic insurrection. And, so long as it continued to be utterly intolerant of the handful of "Tartan terrorist" elements who contemplated an undemocratic insurrection; which intolerance, to be fair, has always been the overwhelming mainstream Nationalist sentiment, there was no great harm in it.

But, politically, the insurrectionist route to Independence always had far too many imponderables to be attractive to a Country which (WW2 Bombing aside) had last seen major organised violence on its soil as long ago as 1746.

All logic dictated that Independence would only be achieved through some sort of half way house of the creation of a non-sovereign Scottish Parliament  and a Government machinery at least partially directly answerable to it. That Parliament and that Government could then press on to its "logical" destiny. Indeed it is that version of history which the SNP are selling to us in the Referendum campaign as having always been the only game in town.

But there was a consequence of the Nationalists earlier flirtation with direct action and that hurt them politically before and, initially, after 1999. Much of Scottish Civil Society saw some part of the Nationalist movement as little better than a rabble, immune to rational thinking and not necessarily to be trusted to behave within democratic norms.

That was the unspoken thinking which underpinned Labour's comfortable victory in 1999. The SNP were no less trusted to "stand up for Scotland" then than they are now. They just weren't trusted to do so very democratically. And the Nationalists knew it.

And the guy who sorted that out was not Alex Salmond (although he was its ultimate beneficiary). It was John Swinney.

During his brief leadership, it was he who professionalised the SNP, modernised its internal democracy and, most importantly for the purpose of this argument, made clear to the wild men that if they wished to prosper in the Party they should keep their wildness well out of sight. Better still, they might actually decide to join civilisation or depart the stage altogether.

So, by 2007, my own Party's argument, that, if you couldn't thole the Tories, the only option in the Scottish Parliament was Labour or anarchy, simply didn't ring true with the electorate. And, having put their toe in the water, the voters were rewarded between 2007 and 2011 with patently competent government with patently reasonable people in its ranks.

And even I can see the attraction of a strategy that then proceeds on the basis that these competent and reasonable people should be given the powers of independence if that's what they believe is necessary in the interests of the Nation.

Which is why I am so bemused that Yes Scotland has been allowed, for the purposes of the Referendum, to allow the wild men back out of their cage.

I am moved to this thought by this this brief video of the "demonstration" that took place outside of Yesterday's launch of Better Together Glasgow. It was accompanied inside by another "patriot" whose contribution was to shout abuse until he was thrown out. There was no secret made of the intention to carry out this exercise which was advertised on Yes Scotland websites. The guy in the "see you Jimmy wig" is such a caricature of a Scottish Nationalist of the old type that if we had thought him up for our propaganda then we would have been accused of everything from outdated stereotyping to racism. Yet his diatribe from start to finish through a loud hailer was supervised with approval, by all accounts, by a prominent SNP Councillor.

What conceivably did they think this would do to assist the Nationalist cause? The attendees at this event were self selecting No voters. Did anybody think they might be persuaded to change their vote in this manner? Or indeed that any don't knows visiting the Mitchell Library for other reasons would be impressed by the allies of the putative sovereign Government of Scotland.

Insofar as anybody from the higher ranks of the SNP or Yes Scotland was there at all, it should surely have been to tell him and his companions to get to...........You know the word that follows.

Yet disrupting or attempting to disrupt Better Together meetings is an avowed tactic of  some Yes Scotland supporters and indeed, since it has gone has gone uncommented on by their leadership, we can only assume it has their support. The Glasgow event is only the most high profile example to date.

A bit of advice. For the avoidance of any doubt, this is not the behaviour of people who undecideds are likely to entrust with greater power. It is not even the behaviour of democratic insurrectionists or democrats of any sort.

From a purely partisan point of view, long may it continue. I suspect however that Kevin Pringle knows that as well, even if Blair Jenkins patently doesn't.